I saw MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, which I liked but didn’t love (even if all the critics tell me I'm supposed to love it). There were some nice moments in it, I enjoyed the fantasy aspects but ultimately thought it would have made a better Woody Allen short story. (If you’re not familiar with his collection of short stories, treat yourself. They’re hilarious and wildly imaginative. Get Without Feathers or Getting Even.) But I digress as usual…
One aspect of MIDNIGHT IN PARIS really bothered me -- all the wasted dialogue. Woody Allen isn't the only culprit, I see it in other movies and shows too. And it's just a personal pet peeve. But if you’re a young writer-hopeful (I like that term so much better than wannabe. Wannabe sounds like an Indian Guides troop.), you might want to give this rant some consideration.
You only have a certain amount of time to tell a story. Every word needs to count. In MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (warning: scene spoiler alert but it won't effect your enjoyment of the movie), there's a potentially funny sequence when Owen Wilson (picture Woody Allen but young and Gentile) is trapped in a hotel room with earrings he took from his fiancé (for a reason I won't divulge). On FRASIER we would do this type of scene every other week. And it would be packed with funny lines, whopper lies, great reactions. I'm sure Neil Simon, if given the same comic premise, would do the same.
"My earrings are gone!"
"Really? You sure?"
"Did you check everywhere?"
"Yes. They're missing."
"Really?" Did you even bring them?"
"Yes I brought them."
"I don't know that you did".
“I don’t remember seeing them.”
“I brought them. I saw them this morning.”
You get the point.
Sorry but to me that's just lazy writing. You may say, "well, that's the way people talk.". And I would say absolutely -- but it's not interesting. It's sure not funny and this is a block comedy scene. As a writer it's your job to do better. Anyone can write the exchange I presented above. Your job is to make it funnier or more compelling or more thought-provoking or…more whatever.
Can people stammer? Sure. Do they talk ungrammatically? Every sentence. They also hedge and hem and haw and talk in circles. And you can use those qualities and still be engrossing. I refer you to any David Mamet play. Naturalistic dialogue doesn't have to be boring. But it takes skill to make it sing. At least attempt to do that.
Some would say that promotes dialogue that is too stylized. And often times they're right. Just as bad as boring conversation is the "no human being would ever say that" charge. But I'd rather err on the side of style, on the side of trying too hard rather than not enough.
I can hear some of you now. What about Aaron Sorkin? He uses a lot of short sentences and characters repeating other characters’ lines. What about him? I know. I’ve even spoofed him myself. But there is a definite flow to Sorkin’s dialogue. There’s a rhythm. Everything is carefully designed. It’s not just idle chit-chat, it’s lyrics.
I'll stop just short of saying you're making art because that always sounds incredibly pretentious so I'll just say you’re making diversions worthy of our time and even our money. Make every word count.
Maybe Woody should have traveled back to Paris in the 1920s – and spent more time with Hemingway.